The region of Basra, the city of Sinbad the Sailor and the starting point of his famous adventurous voyages to the World, is, some would say, the most beautiful part of Iraq, outshining both the Persian miniature scenery of the central Euphrates and the cool, majestic north.
But Basra retains a romantic aura. So does the whole area of the south from Shatt El-Arab (the meeting point of Tigris and Euphrates rivers) up to Amara on the Tigris and Suq Eshiukh on the Euphrates: it is lush, watered, full of trees and gardens and canoes gliding on the mirror-surfaces of calm lagoons. It is an area of countless birds and a variety of animals. You feel that lions, possibly dragons or the Great Roc of A Thousand and One Nights may appear.
Basra is Iraq's 3rd largest city and main seaport, situated 67 km to the north of the Arabian Gulf and 549 km south east of Baghdad. When you see it today, you will be reminded of the commercial importance it has enjoyed for centuries; endless ships shuttle back and forth on Shatt El-Arab.
Ashar is the heart of the city and the old commercial center; its covered bazaar and mosque mark the end of the creek that links it and the river to Old Basra. Upstream is Margil, the garden suburb fanning out from the forest of cranes at the wharves of the Old Basra port and the railway station; and a little further you cross to the island that faces the Shatt El-Arab Hotel, where Basra's airport was sited until the 1960s when it was moved to Shuaiba. Here are flowers and palms and that blessed water that is the glory of all Iraq, but particularly of the south.
Basra has been called the Venice of the East, but this is misleading. It does, however, have a number of canals and they add real enchantment to the scene. At certain times of the year the shaded creek just below Ashar is full of singing and drumming as picnic- or wedding-parties of Iraqis spread carpets, produce hand-drums and dance. Bee-eaters, kingfishers and other birds flit through the date-gardens, the slanting sun produces a magical effect.
Basra was founded in 637 AD by Utba bin Ghazwan on order from Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab (634-644 AD), as soon as the Sassanian capital at Ctesiphon fell to the Muslim armies. It was made into a military base, and a mosque was built there of mud and reeds. Of that and of the original palace nothing can be seen today.
Basra looms into history once again with the raising there by Zubeir ibn Al-Awwam and Talha bin Ubaidullah of a force to resist the claim of Ali, the Prophet Mohammad's cousin, to the Caliphate after the murders of Caliphs Omar and Othman. A battle took place outside Basra to the west and it resulted in the deaths of both Zubeir and Talha. Zubeir was buried on the battle-site and that is why the small town that has grown up there is called Azzubeir to this day.
Today the older parts of Ashar are still attractive. The covered bazaars is full of beautiful old-style houses with balconies leaning over into the narrow streets and beautiful wooden facades in the style of old Arab architecture (called Shanasheel). They have character and are worth wandering through. They are quite extensive; the shops are well-stocked; they smell of spice and herbs and coffee; there is an old-world atmosphere there.